Sunday, November 22, 2009

In Search of Loss

Yesterday night I went to see the Dark Star Orchestra, a band dedicated to recreating the Grateful Dead concert experience. Though they sometimes create their original setlists made up entirely of Grateful Dead songs, they usually cover complete concerts, from beginning to end. The show they ended up covering was October 2, 1972, originally played by the Grateful Dead at the Springfield Civic Center in Massachusetts, but played last night at the Lowell Auditorium.

It's worth to mention that the Orchestra was without its founding guitar player John Kadlecik because he had just resigned to join Furthur - a band with original Grateful Dead members Phil Lesh and Bob Weir - as a full-time lead guitar player. Taking his place for the night was Jeff Mattson (left), who played earlier with Donna Jean Godchaux's band as the opening act. He played capably, quoting Jerry tones and lead lines, building the dramatic solo in "Morning Dew" to a hard peak and running quicksilver Mixolydian scales across multiple octaves in "Playin' In The Band."

The crowd was comprised of mostly baby boomers, some talking about the last time they had seen Donna and some young, wasted people. Most audience members knew all the tunes and could predict the expected high points in some arrangements. But somewhere above the bobbing heads and the Windows '95 light show there was an irrevocable sense of loss.

What were the audience members looking for? Why were so many there, in a cramped auditorium seeing a Grateful Dead cover band? Why were they reacting with such joy and anticipation at familiar opening chords or at expected arrangements? I counted myself as one of those people until midway through the first set. Then profound sadness and a sense of irretrievability sunk in. As my show companion said, "This is a cover band, people. Not the Grateful Dead." And it's absolutely and unarguably true. Mattson tried to play like Jerry and rhythm guitarist Rob Eaton imitated Bob Weir's vocal inflections. In short, every band member put on their Dead suits for the night, and I felt truly sad. Yes, their attention to detail, in "Half Step" particularly, was outstanding, eliminating the jam before the vocal section of the coda since the Dead didn't play that in 1972. But I just couldn't help thinking that the people at the show - and the performers on stage - were in search of a ghost, a ghost that has been long gone, and will be forever lost.

Phil Lesh once said, "Since Jerry's death I get the feeling that a lot of Heads need to confirm for themselves that it was as good as they thought it was." And that's what going to a Dark Star Orchestra show feels like. A bunch of people looking for confirmation that their memories were really as good as they thought they were. Only one idea struck me for the duration of the show: Jerry Garcia is dead. He's gone. Gone. And nothing's going to bring him back.

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